Sunday, July 31, 2011

My August Childhood

Early on every morning of my childhood between mid and late July, I awoke to the rhythm of horses' hooves coming from the Oklahoma training track across the street from our Fifth Avenue home in Saratoga Springs. I lay in my bed, eyes closed, listening. First one set of hooves, then another, faster, approaching and disappearing, or a group of them together. Sometimes conversation or the gentle crooning of "workout boys," as we called them then, joined the rhythm.

I would roll out of bed, and kneel on the floor, my elbows perched on the windowsill, my chin resting on my hands. I hoped to catch glimpses of the horses between the houses and trees that partially blocked my view. I was glad that my bedroom was in the front of the house where I could begin my summer mornings this way.

But by August, when racing traditionally began, I had moved my sleeping quarters to the basement where my older sister, Carolyn, and I would spend the month, because my parents rented the four upstairs bedrooms. In the final days of July, we emptied our closets, our desks and dressers, and made the rooms look ready for our "roomers." My parents slept in the livingroom for the month using the hide-a-bed (a fold-out sofa), opening it every night and closing it up every morning.

In the early years, my parents put a wooden sign on the lawn that read "ROOMS" in my mothers artistic lettering. Before long, we became part of the network of Saratogians who rented rooms or houses to August people, bringing in some additional household cash. When the husbands went to work for the day, housewives knew who to call. Lois might call my mother, "I have a man who needs a room and mine are full. Do you have anything?" My mother might call Marilyn, "I have two men, but can only take one more. Can I send the other to you?"

Our four bedrooms were always full, either from people who came year after year, or from someone who knew someone who recommended someone who needed a place. Most of the time our roomers were employed by the track. A few came to play the horses, but my parents preferred not to have flighty bettors who might not be depended upon to stay the entire four-week season.

Because our upstairs had only one bathroom, my parents almost always rented exclusively to men. "The men don't want to share the bathroom with women," my mother would say. Occasionally, a wife might be allowed to visit on the weekend.

We had Mr. Snow who loved "coming up to the country." He complimented my violin practice, and, when he returned to Queens, he sent me first-day-covers for my stamp collection. On Tuesdays, the track's dark day, Mr. Snow drove out to Washington County for Hand melons, and to Winslow's on route 9 for their turkey dinner.

Mr. Ludski did not have a car. Since our house was an easy walk to the flat track, this wasn't a problem, but in his free time he wanted to find unusual flowers. He would prowl the roadsides and nearby parks assuaging his botanical interest, walking many miles on a Tuesday. When he returned to New York, he would scatter seeds of wildflowers in Central Park.

We had a horse salesman from Ireland; the "boys," Charlie, and Marshall Cassidy, who were just beginning long careers with the New York Racing Association; the "three musketeers" who came back to the house in a slump if they had lost that day, and the "girls," who came only one season, adding drama and glamour, their sequined ball gowns hanging from the door jambs; and countless others.

In the mornings, Carolyn and I had a few chores. The men would leave by 6 a.m. My mother went into action instantly. I emptied the ash trays and waste baskets, and brought used sheets, towels, and water glasses to the kitchen. Waste baskets would be filled with pink sheets and The New York Times. How strange it seems to me now that the men smoked in the bedrooms! Further dating my experience to the 1960s and 70s, each man had a small fan to keep himself comfortable on the hot nights. Few people had, and no one expected, air conditioners.

Bedsheets were changed every third day. My mother had two long clotheslines across our large back yard. Sheets and towels went from end-to-end and side-to side. If rain persisted, she hung the laundry in the basement, but that would be a stressful week. Before any of the men might reappear, she would race up the stairs with cleaning supplies in hand. By 10 a.m., in her "work dress," as she called the A-line sleeveless shifts she made for summer, she was ready to sit for just a minute in the livingroom in front of one of our large oscillating fans, wiping her face with a kleenex.

Most of the men would return in the late morning and leave again before the 1:00 post-time. When we heard the track's bugle call from our house, we knew they would be gone until 6 p.m., around the time of the final race. Then they would go out for dinner, and be in by 8:00, ready to study the news for tomorrow's race day. Somewhere in-between times, Carolyn and I had to run upstairs to take our showers. Our first floor only had a half-bath. If we missed our chance for the day, we had to take a sponge bath in the basement set-tubs.

Carolyn and I liked sleeping in the basement. We had comfortable twin beds without bedspreads so they were easier to make each morning. The basement was cooler than our upstairs rooms, and sharing a room for a while was fun. In addition, our toys were in the basement, and we really weren't too worried about making that window of time for an upstairs bath. Some of this novelty wore off as we got to high school and college, but, for the two of us, the racing season always brought a sense of newness and curiosity.

For one week each August, my parents shipped us off to our grandparents who lived in a small rural home in the Berkshires of Massachusetts. We swam in the nearby river, sent sticks sailing in the brook, picked raspberries, helped our grandfather in his toy shop, climbed the apple trees, ate four meals a day, walked a half-mile to the tiny post office for the mail and a treat, and were doted upon but not spoiled (horrors!). If it sounds idyllic, that's because it was.

Some years, we also spent an August week at our aunt and uncle's in northern New Jersey. Then we might get a trip to the ocean where there were boardwalks and salt water taffy, an exotic outing for children who grew up with Adirondack lakes. At their suburban Victorian home, we ate gingersnaps from a box and made leaves burn using the sun and a magnifying glass.

But back in Saratoga, we found plenty to do. We could pick up the Spa bus on Circular Street and ride out to the Peerless Pools. Orthodox Jews who rented places on Phila Street also rode the bus, getting off at the Lincoln Baths. By the time I was ten, my best friend, Patti, and I could ride our bikes the four miles to the Spa pools or to play in Ferndell Spring.

For a few years, Patti and I made a checklist with the name of every state on a piece of paper. Riding our bikes, studying the license plates of the cars parked along the sidestreets, we tried to find a car for every state in the country. (Nooo, we did not have cars parked on the front yards. Our neighborhood of finely groomed grass never allowed such a thing!) Any state in the northeast was an easy find. More distant places like Illinois or Georgia intrigued us, but Alaska and Hawaii were the real trophies. Years could go by without finding one of those, although now and then a Rolls Royce with a British license plate crossed our path! This required adding a whole new line on our checklist.

And we were horse crazy. Patti and I drew horses, painted horse pictures, pretended to be horses, talked horses with our friends, read every girl-and-her-horse story we could find, and knew the different horse breeds from books. Even though my parents rarely went to the races and kids were not allowed to go, we made regular pilgrimages to the flat track early in the morning to watch the workout. We always had some knowledge of the year's star horses and jockeys and hoped to see them.

Then August would come to a close. Before the Henning Road entry, horse trailers rumbled up our street to the stables a few blocks away. We were ready for it all to end. My mother looked forward to taking down one of the two clotheslines and folding up that hide-a-bed until company came for Christmas. Carolyn and I had tired of our toys and the basement. We had nice bedrooms and were ready to reclaim them.

No sooner had the last roomer walked out the front door, than we began cleaning and moving our clothes back upstairs. Now horse trailers went by in the opposite direction with horses peering out from behind the small windows. Still, a few of them stayed a while and worked out across the street. In the misty cool late-summer mornings, the rhythm of hooves would wake me as I again slept in my bedroom. Now-and-then I would hear the soft singing of the workout boys whom I knew sat high in the saddle of the sleek thoroughbreds as they went around the Oklahoma Track.

By early September, the horses would all have gone, just leaving their flies behind. Cars no longer parked along the street, August's earnings went into the budget, and my mother went back to her part-time job at Skidmore College, while Carolyn and I headed to school.

After I graduated from college in 1978, my parents rented to just a few people for a couple of weeks during August for the Fasig-Tipton yearling sales. Before long, they stopped having roomers altogether. Still, until they sold the Fifth Avenue house in 2007, I made a point of staying overnight in my childhood bedroom once during the season and listening to the sound of horses' hooves going by.

I'll be heading to Saratoga tonight and will have my calendar in hand. My parents and I need to find a date to go early to the flat track and watch the morning workouts and admire the sleek thoroughbreds. Maybe I'll even see a car with a British license plate parked along the street.


  1. Boy, does this bring back memories! We also moved ourselves and our four children out of our Circular St. bedrooms and slept downstairs for the month of August. We remember fondly many of our regulars, who came back year after year, although we had some "interesting" times with off-the-street tenants whom we welcomed if we had a spare room. When our kids became teenagers, they didn't want to move out of their rooms anymore to sleep in sleeping bags on the living room floor. But one year I split the rent with one of my boys so I could rent his room to a man who served as an escort for a grand society dame whose husband didn't want to attend all those August soirees. Then we stopped renting altogether once I went to work full-time, in the same office at Skidmore as your mom. Another bunch of wonderful memories, there! Thanks for this, Virginia.

  2. Virginia, this is beautiful writing. I remember visiting in late July with my parents. When I read this post I could "see" the upstairs to your parent's home. Thank you for this memory.

  3. This was a wonderful visit back to a time I too remember fondly. My grandparents lived at 176 East and they would rent a room in August. August afternoons always bring back the memories of sitting on their vine covered porch watching the track goers parade past the house. I sold Pink Sheets when they were 15 cents and the Saratogian lived up to it's name. Luckily I happened here via Woodswalker. She has a fine blog list. Yours is yet another example.